Socrates: Writing vs. Memory

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates calls into question the propriety and impropriety of writing. Throughout his discussion with a colleague, Socrates insists that writing destroys memory and weakens the mind (Ong, 2002). To support his theory, Socrates recounts a story in which two Egyptian gods, Theuth and Thamus, debate the merit of introducing ‘letters’, or writing, to the people. Theuth argues that the ‘letters’ “…will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is specific both for the memory and for the wit.”(Plato, n.d.). In response, Thamus states that ‘letters’ “… will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls…” (Plato, n.d.). Thamus believed that the people would become dependent on the written word and cease to use their own memories. He also believed the written word would lead people to become “hearers of many things”, appear as though they were all-knowing, but to actually be learners of nothing. With the extension of the written word into both mass-produced print and digital formats, and observation of our tech-reliant society, it appears that Thamus’ beliefs may have had an element of truth.

According to Nicholas Carr (2010), ‘Socrates was right.’ Once people had acquired the means to write and read their thoughts and the thoughts of others, they relied less upon the contents of their own memories (Carr, 2010). Writing affords us a way to preserve knowledge, information, ideas, and histories. The written word allows for the re-examination of information, and the organization of thoughts, whether they are to-do lists or academic essays. With the invention of letter and printing presses, the increased availability and distribution of books and journals provided supplements to what Carr calls ‘the brain’s biological storehouse.'(Carr, 2010) Writing lists provides us with a means of remembering exactly what is to be done. The mass production and distribution of information through various mediums such as writing, printing, computer and the Internet has developed a culture in which people are “hearers of many things.” We can access any piece of information through the internet to learn more about a topic. We can experience many adventures through fictional novels and converse with a diverse, global community. We are hearers of many things, and we are also learners of many things as well. What Socrates did not foresee was the written word providing more people a ‘greater and more diverse supply of facts, opinions, ideas, and stories’ than ever before. As such, Carr argues that ‘both the method and the culture of deep reading encouraged the commitment of printed information to memory.'(Carr, 2010) Hieronimo Squarciafico, also believed that an ‘abundance of books makes men less studious’(Ong, 2002). Ong (2002) believed that books and the internet are destroyers of memory, enfeebling the mind by relieving it of too much work. He felt that people believed to be wise would no longer be considered as such and would seek wisdom from the tools of the written word. With global access to information, anyone , not just academic scholars, could seek knowledge and process it at their own pace. The introduction of new storage items such as audiotapes, videotapes, copiers, calculators and computers expanded the range of ‘artificial memory’. Computers and the internet were no longer viewed as supplements to our mental storehouses, but rather a replacement option to personal memory and that they are well on their way to taking over our inner memories (Carr, 2010). As Carr writes in the first chapter of his book, The Shallows, “I can feel it….someone, or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going…. but it’s changing. (Carr, 2010)” Many of us can attest to this changing as we don’t think the way we used to. Recalling phone numbers and knowing the date without our cell phones, or computers is a challenge for most.

Ong (2002) states that writing restructures consciousness, thought processes, and that “writing is interiorized technology” which has “shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man.” Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) conducted a research study examining memory and use of computer and the Internet. The results suggest that when subjects are aware that of the fact that information is available via print and technology, they often only memorize where to access information as opposed to memorizing the information itself. By using writing as a tool to support memory, by having the ability to re-read text for clarification, or for frequent study, our brains are free to concentrate on higher level thinking, synthesizing data and extending understanding. In the 1970’s, objections were made over the use of calculators in the classroom. studies showed that with calculators, students were free to gain deeper understandings of their exercises. The internet, or Web, is just the opposite. It puts more pressure on our memories and is in essence “a technology of forgetfulness (Carr, 2010).”
While it is true that our memories have certainly been altered, they are adapting and using writing as a supportive tool. Now, people work at thinking smarter, not harder, extending us beyond being a growing group of ‘hearers of many things,’ but we have also become true thinkers and learners. Socrates did deliver an element of truth and it holds true that even the strongest memories may need a little help now and then.

” …he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path.”

Plato, through Socrates

References

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ong, Walter J.. (2002). Orality and Literacy. Routledge. Retrieved 27 September 2013, from

Plato. (n.d.). Phaedrus. (Jowett, B, Trans.). Retrieved September 21, 2013 from https://connect.ubc.ca/bbcswebdav/pid-1529328-dt-content-rid-5277723_1/courses/CL.UBC.ETEC.540.64A.2013W1.28753/module02/m2-phaedrus.html

Sparrow, B., Liu, J. and Wegner, D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertip. Science 333,776. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745.

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